I've been meaning to post about an interesting fringe I attended at Green Party Conference last week, with speakers from the RSPCA and a sergeant from the Met Police's dog support unit.
A lot of what they said rang true and reflected concerns raised by local residents in Ladywell and Brockley. They talked about the increasing number of 'status dogs', in particular the issue of people having dogs to bolster their 'tough' image, designed to impress or scare other people. In some cases, of course, people have these dogs to make themselves feel safer, a bit like those who carry knives mistakenly do.
The RSPCA officer also talked about the shortfalls she saw in the current Dangerous Dogs legislation and what changes she felt were needed to make it more effective. The RSPCA is arguing that the emphasis should be on 'the deed rather than the breed' and on irresponsible dog owners. They are also arguing that Police Forces need more resources to deal with the increase in incidents involving dangerous dogs, as well as more easily enforceable legislation.
Apparently there are more pitbulls in the UK now than there were when the Dangerous Dogs Act came into force and the most commonly abandoned breed of dog at Battersea Dogs Home and elsewhere now is the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, as owners who think they are getting a 'hard' dog get disgruntled when they find out that it is actually a bit of a softie who likes to roll over and get its stomach tickled.
Worryingly, there has been a huge increase in the number of incidents of anti-social behaviour involving dogs in London over the past few years. Between 2002-2005 there were an average of 42 seizures of dogs a year. In 2006 this jumped to 173 and then more than doubled in 2007 at 481 seizures a year. Since 1st April this year there have already been more than 280 dogs seized by the 20 qualified dog handlers working for the police across London.
There has been a big increase in backstreet breeding, with horrific cases of 30 or more pitbull puppies being found in cages in tiny flats. There has also been an increase in chain fighting, where owners encourage their dogs to fight with other dogs while on a lead, as well as organised dog fighting, and ring barking, where dogs are trained by tearing the bark off trees, which can kill the tree. There has also been an increase in the number of dogs being used to protect criminal assets. The police officer also talked about the number of people trying to take dogs to festivals, such as the Notting Hill Carnival.
The police are struggling to cope with the increased workload they have and the extra kennelling fees they accrue from all the extra dog seizures. Many Councils have insufficient animal welfare officers to deal with the situation. Lewisham, with two animal welfare officers, is apparently better staffed than other boroughs, but still over-stretched, with the vast majority of their time spent dealing with stray dogs, which leaves little time for awareness-raising or enforcement action against irresponsible dog owners.
However, Lewisham may soon benefit from joining the BARK scheme (Borough Action for responsible K9s - yes, someone had fun coming up with that acronym), which was piloted with succcess in Brent. The RSPCA officer also said that they could come and do an Community Animal Action Week (CAAW) in the area, which they run in conjunction with local Safer Neighbourhood Teams and housing associations. As well as offering advice to residents on looking after their dogs, they also offer free microchipping and neutering of pets.
It is certainly an issue that needs to be monitored closely in Lewisham and action take where appropriate. I know that in Ladywell people have raised a number of concerns about dogs, ranging from irresponsible owners who don't clean up after their dog has fouled and dogs that are not kept under control in public spaces. There have been a number of appalling incidents in and around Algernon Road, where 4 pet cats have been mauled to death by dogs in the past 18 months, in some cases with the dog owners watching.